The arts buzzword of 2016: 'immersive'

If there was an arts buzzword for 2016, it was “immersive.”

The word landed in our email boxes with invites to immersive theater events. It topped press releases announcing immersive art installations. It filled out notices for immersive, site-specific dance performances and even applied, quite literally, to one underwater immersive sculptural installation.

“People love the I-word,” said Noah Nelson, who produces the noproscenium.com newsletter about immersive theater. Immersive culture, he says, could best be described as site specific, non-traditional or experiential art and entertainment that breaks the fourth wall or otherwise envelopes the viewer. “For me, it means a force, it’s all around you but it also goes through you. It’s not just a 360-degree set. It makes you part of it.”

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Take one Saturday afternoon in October, a veritable barrage of immersive cultural happenings in L.A.

At Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown, sculptural clouds lighted from within and showering choral music, hung over the entryway escalators. Stoic performers in sky-blue bowling hats and cloud-print ties rode up and down emitting deep, tonal chanting and murmuring bits of unintelligible poetry.

Passersby ogled the spectacle that was “Nimbus,” an immersive, site-specific art installation and performance that was a collaboration between experimental opera director Yuval Sharon, composer Rand Steiger and artist Patrick Shearn.

Meanwhile, down the street at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary, visitors streamed through “Doug Aitken: Electric Earth,” a survey exhibition for which the artist transformed the space into a trippy, immersive multimedia landscape he called “a film set of the mind.”

Across town at Gavlak Gallery on Highland Avenue, visitors descended into Marnie Weber's fairy tale gone wrong, a video projection inside a pagan chapel setting, complete with an ethereal soundscape and shimmering gilded trees — all part of her solo art exhibition, “Chapel of the Moon.”

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Indeed, an audience facing a traditional proscenium stage or a museum-goer staring at a framed painting on a white gallery wall feels almost quaint these days compared with, say, the Van Beethoven truck, which toured Los Angeles County, allowing audiences to watch Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic with virtual reality goggles. Immersive events carry the promise of intimacy and interactivity, of a unique experience, of relevance with youthful audiences who increasingly yearn to participate in their art experience rather than view it from afar. 

“Nimbus” creator Sharon suspected the immersion trend is an outgrowth of our culture of customization.

“We’re in a moment now of highly individualized choices. People really like their experiences catered for them,” he said. “Audiences may be responding to the fact that, if in the rest of their lives they get to tailor make everything — the newsfeeds we get, on-demand TV, even the experience of buying a ticket to a performance and choosing your seat online —  then why shouldn’t culture itself also be shifting towards that participatory mode as well.”  

Immersive culture, of course, isn’t new. In the mid-19th century, Richard Wagner codified the idea with the term Gesamtkunstwerk, meaning synthesizing multiple art forms in one piece, engaging all the senses. It’s been a growing trend, however, for some years, particularly in live theater with recent productions such as Punchdrunk International’s commercially successful “Sleep No More” in New York, Four Larks’ popular “junkyard opera” in Los Angeles titled “The Temptation of St. Anthony” and even the current hit on Broadway, “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” whose creators aimed to envelope the audience in the set and its performers.

Halloween was a natural for immersive theater. The spooky season brought a bloody rash of immersive experiences such as the theatrical pop-up “An Invasion of Decency!,” which unfolded in a downtown L.A. warehouse.

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But immersiveness now ripples across all genres, not just theater, from tucked-away gallery exhibitions to the L.A. Phil’s Insight Program, whose immersive “multi-sensory presentations” pair film or video projections with live music. Insight has been so popular, the L.A. Phil expanded the program from four concerts last season to seven this season.

Many art world insiders said the trend is a reaction, in one way or another, to digital culture.

“People are seeking experiences where they can be engaged in a more authentic and direct way, because so many of our communications are removed and facilitated through screens,” said Mat Diafos Sweeney, artistic director of Four Larks, which stages its productions in spaces such as a former flower shop or a car repair garage. “Theater, at its core, is about a live, present, communal experience. What we’ve tried to do is magnify those elements, so that people have a space they can enter that’s totally removed from the digital lifestyle that predominates every other aspect of our lives.”

The Mistake Room art gallery in downtown L.A. just staged “Thomas Hirschhorn: Stand-alone,” an exhibition of the Swiss artist’s sprawling “spatial collages” that engulf the viewer, addressing politics, love, aesthetics and philosophy in an immersive environment spanning four rooms. Part of what powers the immersion trend, said Mistake Room director Cesar Garcia, is backlash to technological innovation.

“With industrialization,” Garcia said, pointing back in history to the invention of the washing machine, the stove and packaged convenience foods, “there was this notion of what technology could do to improve the quality of your life. As we started to see the dehumanizing aspects of technology, there was some pushback to that. Now we want to grow our own food, we want to know where our food comes from. That extends to this idea of immersion — it’s this real, experiential thing you’re going to take part in.”

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With Internet connectivity comes information overload, though, which ironically can make us feel disconnected, said O-Lan Jones, whose Overtone Industries puts on the immersive, participatory Spontaneous Combustion Choir. There’s so much information out there, Jones said, that it can lead to “overwhelming impotence, feeling that you don’t have a place in the whole or power to affect the whole.” With her immersive choir experience, audiences “have a place in the art that’s going on,” she said. “They’re a unique ingredient, it’s personal. You have a place in something bigger than yourself right then — and that’s powerful.”

Site-specificity in many immersive works is key to the trend’s popularity, said curator John Wolf. He debuted an art exhibition this fall, “The Human Condition,” in an abandoned West Adams hospital, filling three floors with site-specific works by 86 artists. The prints, drawings, photographs, sculptures and room-sized installations filled surgery and recovery rooms, the nurse’s lounge, the psych and maternity wards. There was even a “scent installation” in the cafeteria’s kitchen freezer. The exhibition drew 2,000 people on opening night and 1,200 a weekend after that, he said. 

“Visitors tell me they get such a visceral feeling from being in the space with the works and based on all the subconscious history that’s happened here,” Wolf said. “It’s a hospital, so a lot of pain, joy, trauma. The art not only resonates in this kind of immersive environment, it’s magnified.”

Photogenic, immersive art installations frequently become selfie magnets for picture-snapping millennials who then share their images on Instagram and Facebook — a gesture welcomed by most museums and artists.

The social media star at the Broad museum is Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrored Room — The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away.” With its colorful blitz of glimmering lights engulfing viewers in a private, mirrored chamber, the work draws about one visitor per minute while the museum is open, it said — more than 130,000 people in the Broad’s first year.

At LACMA, images of visitors cheekily posing in Chris Burden’s glowing “Urban Light” installation and Random International’s “Rain Room” are popular online memes nearly synonymous with art-going in L.A. “Urban Light” alone generates about one-third of Instagram pictures geotagged at LACMA, the museum said.

It’s hard to imagine a major museum exhibition without an immersive selfie station. The Skirball Cultural Center’s current “Pop for the People: Roy Lichtenstein in L.A.” exhibition includes a life-sized, three-dimensional re-creation of Van Gogh’s “Bedroom at Arles” that visitors can walk through and take pictures in.

“As a storytelling device, the canvas has its limitations, it has its boundaries, physically,” said media artist Refik Anadol, whose immersive re-imagination of Andy Warhol’s 1969 “Rain Machine” is currently up at Young Projects Gallery in West Hollywood, complete with a digitally composed rainstorm through which visitors walk. “But in an immersive piece, people are inside the canvas. And the only way to say you were inside that experience is to share it. Online, it becomes a communal, sentimental experience. So immersion, for me, is a physical and virtual connection between two worlds.”

The word “immersive” has been so prevalent in the arts this year, however, the term may have lost its resonance, said Annie Saunders, whose experimental theater company Wilderness staged the immersive production “The Day Shall Declare It” in L.A. last year.

“It’s vanishing into non-meaning, because it’s used so widely to describe so many types of things,” she said.

As to what the word means to her, personally, she added: “I’ve always responded to things I’ve felt I could be inside of in some way, and I feel like if the word ‘immersive’ has any meaning anymore, that’s what it is: You’re inside of something.”

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @debvankin

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